Republicans appeared on track for a pair of congressional wins on Wednesday, after notching an easy victory in a Wisconsin House seat and appearing poised to take a seat away from the Democrats in California.
The wins would be seen as a boost to the party and President Donald Trump, whose re-election campaign has been battered by outrage over his response to the coronavirus pandemic and whose popularity has been dipping in many recent polls.
The contests were also being watched closely for how Americans deal with the prospect of vote-by-mail contests in the general election in November as the coronavirus pandemic makes in-person voting a public health risk.
Mike Garcia, a former navy fighter pilot endorsed by Trump, was leading in preliminary results from a special election north of Los Angeles. With about 140,000 votes counted, Garcia was ahead of Democratic California state legislator Christy Smith by 55.9% to 44.1% in the state’s 25th congressional district, preliminary results from the California secretary of state’s office said.
If his lead holds up as the results are tallied, Garcia will fill a seat that became vacant after Democrat Katie Hill last year resigned following a scandal in which intimate photos were published of her online and she faced accusations of sexual relations with her subordinate staffers.
But it could take several days for a winner to be declared, because the election was conducted largely by mail-in voting to avoid any novel coronavirus exposure at the polls. As long as they are postmarked by election day, California will accept ballots arriving up to three days later.
A Democratic strategist said that late ballots are likely to favor Smith, because more Democrats than Republicans had not returned their ballots by election day, according to tracking by Political Data Inc.
“It is looking extremely good,” Garcia said on a conference call. “I won’t give a victory speech tonight. We’ll save that for hopefully tomorrow night as the data comes in.”
Hill was the first Democrat to represent the district in 25 years when she was elected in 2018. Garcia, a political newcomer, has described her tenure as “an embarrassment”.
Meanwhile Tom Tiffany, a state senator endorsed by Trump, easily won a special congressional election in a heavily conservative, rural Wisconsin district, cheering Republicans even as Democrats argued the victory revealed vulnerabilities for the president among his base.
Tiffany’s win over Democrat Tricia Zunker in northern Wisconsin’s 7th district comes in the state’s second election amid the coronavirus pandemic in the past five weeks.
Tiffany will replace the former reality TV star Sean Duffy, a Republican who retired in September. The district has been vacant since Duffy’s retirement.
Trump won Wisconsin by less than a point, but carried the district by 20 points, in 2016. Tiffany’s win over Zunker was about six points less than that, based on preliminary results. Tiffany rejected Democrats’ argument that the smaller margin was a sign that Trump’s support was waning.
“Any time you lose by 14 points, I don’t think that’s a moral victory,“ Tiffany said. “This is a decisive victory here.”
The win is in a district that Trump will need to once again win big if he hopes to again carry Wisconsin, a state he won by less than a point in 2016. Tiffany’s big victory also helps to erase the taste of a loss by a conservative Wisconsin supreme court justice in last month’s election, a race that boosted Democrats’ confidence.
The Wisconsin Democratic party spokeswoman, Courtney Beyer, said the results showed a drastic swing for Democrats, even though Zunker lost by about 14 points.
“For Trump to win re-election, red areas have to get redder to balance out blue areas getting bluer,“ she said.
Zunker said the race “laid the groundwork for this seat to turn blue in November”.
Zunker, president of the Wausau school board, was trying to become the first Native American from Wisconsin elected to Congress. She pulled in big-name endorsements including Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, but the numbers were against her. The district has been under Republican control since 2011 and was redistricted to more heavily favor Republicans.
There was uncertainty over whether holding a special election in the middle of the pandemic would affect the outcome. Election clerks said they were prepared, about 20% of registered voters had voted absentee, and there were no calls to delay or alter the election like there were before Wisconsin’s presidential primary last month.
With Tiffany’s win, Republicans hold five of Wisconsin’s eight seats in Congress. Tiffany will serve through the end of the year, but will have to run again in November to serve a full two-year term.